It’s hard not to love Balinese ducks. Wherever you have rice fields, you fill find these elegant, slender birds.
e) Over the years I have grown to adore the seductive, mellow flavours of Pak Rimpin’s smoked duck. My son, Krishna, has deemed it his all- time favourite dish, and I pretty much agree with him.
Sunday in the rice fields. A team of Balinese ducks in a breakfast battle fighting over worms and water hyacinth. Quacking, flapping and crests wobbling: a shimmering vista of God’s feathery creatures against an expansive view of mirrored rice fields. The air is deliciously crisp, skies are blue, powder-puff clouds float by and palm trees hug the edges of the fields. This is Bali at its poetic best. I am mesmerised by the ducks and their eco-friendly performance in this green open-air theatre.
It’s hard not to love Balinese ducks. Wherever you have rice fields, you will find these elegant, slender birds. When I first arrived in Ubud, they were a common sight, waddling down the main road in the afternoons, obediently following farmers with white flags on long bamboo poles. Images of the Balinese variety, one of the oldest breeds of domestic duck, are carved in temples throughout Asia dating back some 2,000 years.
In Bali last month we celebrated Hari Saraswati, in honour of Saraswati, the esteemed goddess of literature, science and knowledge. Her consort is a swan, which in Bali translates as a duck.
The morning following Hari Saraswati is known as Banyu Pinaruh, which begins with a long, leisurely bath, preferably in spring water, followed by a feast of smoked duck, Bebek betutu. And when ceremonies require smoked duck, our family always orders it from Bapak Ketut Rimpin, who lives in the area known as Jungut, just behind Casa Luna. This is one of my favourite celebrations in Bali.
The key to this dish is the long, slow cooking of the duck over a fire of coconut and rice husks for eight hours, as well as the blend of spices, and the deep flavour and almighty aroma of fresh coconut oil. Bebek betutu is sublimely tender and delicately spiced and usually accompanied by fragrant yellow rice.
Sitting on a small terrace in Pak Rimpin’s neat family compound, we overlook the sangah, the family temple, and a row of slow-cooking duck under a pile of smouldering rice and coconut husks. It reminds me of autumn leaves burning in the late afternoon.
“When did you start making smoked duck, Pak Rimpin?”
“My older brother started making smoked duck in the early sixties. That was all he did back then and maybe five were the most he would make in a day. Nowadays we make up to thirty.
“After he died I continued the tradition. I took it over as a kind of warisan, inheritance.”
“But what makes your smoked duck so special?” I have tried smoked duck from many different places around Ubud and beyond, and Pak Rimpin’s is the undisputed best.
“Sing ngawang, I don’t know.” He laughs, shrugging his shoulders.
“What about coconut oil?” I am convinced that coconut oil is the absolute essential ingredient for all things delectable, from suckling pig to sambal, as olive oil is to the Italians.
“I order pure coconut oil from the dagang (the seller) in the market. I buy it fresh in small bottles, just three or so a day. The coconut oil in the jerry cans is often mixed with other oils.”
“And what about the spices?” I delve, determined to uncover some trade secrets.
“I pound them. I don’t grind them. A couple of years ago I experimented with the spices and tried using a machine, but it didn’t taste good. Tidak enak!”
Bravo! I love these folk who are passionate about flavours, quality and fine ingredients. With food, it’s all about integrity.
“Hard work though?” I imagine pounding spices every day.
“My wife helps me and she is strong.
I think you know her? She has big arms with lots of muscles.” He holds his arms up in a body-building gesture. We all laugh. Apart from food, humour is surely one of the other special ingredients that crosses cultures, breaks down barriers and makes everything enjoyable.
The process of making smoked duck is a vigorous one. The duck is first massaged with shrimp paste, salt and tamarind to tenderise the meat. It is then filled with the pounded spices, coconut oil, water and various aromatics and wrapped securely in thick coconut bark. After that, the duck is nestled under a tin lid and covered, or rather piled high, with the husks of rice and coconut and set alight. Eight hours later it is cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection.
In Balinese Hindu mythology the duck is revered as an intellectual and spiritual hero because of its way of filter-feeding by extracting the goodness from the muddy rice fields through its beak, leaving the mud behind. This is seen as the ability to separate that which is pure from that which is poison – mertha versus wisya. Ducks symbolise the power of analytical thought and are also respected for being monogamous. It is one of the few meats priests eat, for it is said that what you consume cultivates your character (priests also mainly eat the meat of two-legged animals).
While the duck is at its very best slow-cooked over coals the traditional way or confit-style, it can also be baked in the oven, barbecued or cooked in a pressure cooker. Along with yellow rice, the duck is perfect served with Asian greens or salad. I have even combined the duck with mashed potato in parmentier (a kind of French shepherd’s pie) for a totally indulgent, gratifying dinner.
Certainly food for thought. Meanwhile I will continue to enjoy smoked duck on special occasions and watch them feasting in the rice fields with affection.